INDIANAPOLIS – Sunday will be a chance for the Colts to square their record after four games and to do so, it would have to come with a 60-minute effort against one of the league’s top teams.
Indianapolis hosts Green Bay, a team last year that earned a 15-1 record and one that comes to town hoping to move past a .500 mark.
While the Colts observed a bye week last Sunday, Green Bay won a home shootout over New Orleans, 28-27. It was a typical day on the scoreboard for the Packers.
Green Bay has scored 22 or more points in three of its first four games and rank third in the NFL since 2010 with a 28.7 average. Green Bay has scored at least 30 points in 16 games since 2010, while topping 40 points eight times.
The Packers have averaged 27.9 points in quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ 66 career regular-season starts, the NFL’s top average among all quarterbacks with a minimum of 50 starts since 1950. He is hitting 69.9 percent of his passes this year with a 6.82 yards per attempt mark, while hitting six different players for scores.
The Colts are coming off a season-high 124 rushing yards against Jacksonville, and the team has averaged at least 4.2 yards per rush in two of the first three games.
While the team has been proficient gaining yards on first downs running and passing, interim Head Coach Bruce Arians is looking for better follow through.
“I think it’s always important, and we’ve been doing offensively an excellent job on first down,” said Arians of the rushing game. “I think we’re in the top 10 in the league on first down, but we’re bottom four or five in second down. That’s where we’ve been killing ourselves, especially in the third quarter. We’ve had second-and-three, second-and-four with negative runs, lost yardage. I think we’ve only had one conversion with two running plays in a row for a first down. That has to stop.”
Indianapolis has gained 499 yards on 89 first-down plays. Its 5.61 average ranks seventh in the AFC, 13th in the NFL. Arians spoke in training camp of the need to average well over five yards per play on first downs, but now taking care of business on advantageous second-down chances is a target.
Five times this year, the club has gained no yards or suffered a loss on second-down rushing attempts with first downs no more than three yards away, while twice third-and-one and third-and-two rushes netted the same result.
Arians said the club is harping on production after first-down plays.
“That’s the emphasis for us right now,” said Arians. “The identification of being a better third-down team is to be a better second-down team. We’re a pretty good first-down team, averaging close to six yards a play on first down. That part of it has been the emphasis for the offense.”
On the flipside, opponents have been just as successful against Indianapolis on first downs, a problem that recurred all last season.
In 2011, the club allowed 5.64 yards on 482 first-down plays. Through three games, opponents have a 5.85 average on 84 attempts, placing Indianapolis 13th in the conference and 23rd in the league. Arians knows this is an area for improvement.
“For the defense, we need to play better on first down to play better on third down,” said Arians. “We’re giving up too many yards on first down. We need some sacks. We need some negative plays with our disruptive players to create better third down advantages for us, especially in this ballgame.”
Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky is trying for the overall success of his defense on every down. Manusky knows setting tones is very important at all times, and he is a strong proponent of winning early downs.
“We have to get better at first-down football,” said Manusky. “I think across the board we keep trying to get better and better each week. We keep on preaching it. The more we preach it, the better off we will be.
“It’s big because you get the opponent in third-and-long, and you get those guys on the outside (
“You have to because that’s when we get to start having some fun on third down, be creative, get different players out there, different personnel out there and really move around so much that you have no idea what we’re doing and where we’re coming from,” said Zbikowski. “In order to do that, you have to be third-and-five-plus. First and second down is really where you make your defense. Third down is where we make our money. To make someone go (long distances) drive-after-drive, in the NFL you’re not going to score too many points, maybe 17 or 20 total.”
Arians has been a driving force behind outstanding offenses in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh during his NFL coaching career. He sees a talented quarterback and opponent coming to town on Sunday.
“I think the biggest thing is no matter what happens to Aaron (Rodgers), he’s going to play 60 minutes. He could be down 14 or 20, it doesn’t matter,” said Arians. “They can play up-tempo. They can run the football. The Saints gave them a heck of a battle but with him a lot of times, it’s who gets the ball last. With us, we need the ball last with the lead and hold on to it and finish it. We’ve gotten in situations now where we’ve finished one (game, Minnesota, 23-20 win) but didn’t finish the other (Jacksonville, 22-17 loss).”
Like anything else in this league, the thrust is to sharpen one’s own swords rather than dwelling on the opponent.
“When I talk to our guys, I’m more interested in the Colts than I am the Packers,” said Arians. “We’ll take care of our own business. We know that they wear green and gold and they’ve got a lot of Pro Bowlers. This is a game where our “five-star” players, they’ve got to show up. We’ve got some “five-star” players, and they need to show up in the big game.”